How to write an informative and critical book review

A book review should be more than a flattering summary of the content. Many book reviews are not particularly useful in terms of positioning the book in relation to the literature or engaging with the contribution that the book makes to our collective knowledge. We want our book reviews to do just this. We seek critical engagement, with insights and thoughts from the reviewer that contribute more than a mere summary. Book reviews tend to be much less than 1000 words. Our expectation is for something more robust and probably longer.

Because construction management is an inherently practical topic, there are many books that merely provide guidance for practitioners, without engaging with the research on the topic. There are others that report the results of research without necessarily explaining the implications for practice or, perhaps, engaging effectively with practice. We are in a unique position to help bridge the perceived gap between theory and practice by pointing out what kind of reported research in this and other journals may help to explain issues that the book deals with, as well as what it does not deal with. In other words, although a summary of the contents tells the readers what is included in the book, it does not tell them what is excluded. This is why references to other books and research papers are so important in our book reviews.

While preparing your review, we would appreciate your thoughts on the following:

  • An early paragraph explaining what the book is about and its context in the literature, whether explicit or implicit, with some mention of connected books, papers and debates that relate to the key theme(s) of the book. Clearly, this will require explicit references to previously published literature. You may be reviewing a book that has no references to the literature, in which case we would like you to include in your review the missing links to other important works in the same topic.
  • A critique of the argument/content of the book – the most important part of the review in which you develop your ideas about the topic in relation to the book at hand, but not necessarily drawn from the book. Again this will involve references to other papers and books.
  • Information about the intended audience of the book.
  • Remarks on the strengths and limitations of the book, including its academic credibility. Draw example from the book to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses. This is a crucial part of the review and is the main thing that readers of reviews are looking for.
  • Comments on the format, length and price (or value for money).
  • Comments on how well the text is supported by tables, figures or illustrations.
  • A concluding paragraph with direct remarks about how good the book is, and whether you would recommend it for purchase (and by whom).
  • References to literature you cite in your review. Our aim is to be clear about the position of a book in relation to other publications in the field, especially in terms of positioning the book against the research agenda.
  • These suggestions assume that the book under review is a research-based book of some kind. Much of this guidance will not apply to normative, descriptive texts that explain how to carry out practical construction tasks. There may be an opportunity to write a review that connects the book to the research literature that informs the kind of topics covered. If not, then such a book may justify little more than a summative, single paragraph review.
  • However, in relation to practitioner guide books, a fuller and more reflective account is always welcome.  Especially if the review makes strong connections that help position the book in relation to other texts and, perhaps, to some of the research papers that might reasonably have been expected to inform this kind of work (if any).  One thing we would like to achieve with our book reviews is to bridge the theory-practice divide.  All too frequently, books are either practitioner guide books entirely disconnected from the research literature, or academic research reports entirely disconnected from practice.  Perhaps this is an exaggeration.  However, book reviews would be an ideal place to make those connections.  Publishers of books read book reviews very carefully indeed, and if they see that the academic community is calling for more connections between theory and practice, they will take note.

Please bear in mind that this guidance is not intended as a systematic list of headings, but a prompt for getting book reviewers started in the right direction. Primarily, we seek interesting and stimulating engagement with ideas, not routine text. We expect reviews to come in all shapes and sizes, but probably in the range of 500-3000 words. However, some books can be adequately reviewed in fewer words. Therefore, short reviews are equally likely. If you are unsure about your approach, please feel free to send a draft review for comment and feedback.

Finally, in drafting your text, when referring to the book as the subject of the sentence, please do not write as the book wrote itself! Many book reviews write sentences like, “this book attempt to…”, “this book accomplishes…” and so on. Please avoid such sentences, replacing “this book” with the author’s surname. Since there is no doubt that the book is attributed to an author, there is no need to use such clumsy constructions to avoid naming the author. It is also not necessary to insert the title of the book in the review, when making the book the object of the sentence. In such cases, “this book” is ideal.

http://bit.ly/-bookrvw

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About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
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